The New York Knicks concluded their season Wednesday the same way as the previous four: out of the playoffs.
The difference this time was, having traded veteran Carmelo Anthony to the Oklahoma City Thunder before the season, the Knicks weren't necessarily focused on getting to the postseason. With all their own first-round picks going forward, New York can utilize conventional methods to rebuild the roster after a series of efforts to jump-start the process in free agency have fallen short.
So, after firing head coach Jeff Hornacek, how far are the Knicks away from returning to the playoffs? The answer to that question will hinge on the health of injured star Kristaps Porzingis.
Porzingis injury slows timeline
Before Porzingis went down with a torn ACL in February, New York was hanging around the fringes of the playoff race at 23-31. Without Porzingis, the Knicks finished the season 6-22 -- an 18-win pace over a full season, though that must be understood in the context of a shift in their motivations.
With faint playoff hopes dashed, New York transitioned away from veteran Jarrett Jack to Trey Burke, Emmanuel Mudiay and Frank Ntilikina in the backcourt. Tim Hardaway Jr., Enes Kanter and Courtney Lee missed time with the minor maladies common for teams out of playoff contention, while the Knicks' young players got extended auditions.
That's a long way of saying New York's record without Porzingis isn't necessarily reflective of how the team will play without him going forward. Still, it's reasonable to expect the Knicks to play at a lottery level if Porzingis' rehab extends into the 2018-19 season.
That outcome would be consistent with the experience of Zach LaVine and Jabari Parker, who suffered ACL injuries in February 2017. LaVine returned in January 2018 after missing the season's first 42 games, while Parker was sidelined for 50 games before returning early in February -- nearly a full year after his injury.
The New York organization hasn't yet offered a timetable for Porzingis' return, although sources told ESPN's Ian Begley that he's expected to miss at least 10 months, which would put him back in December at the earliest. By that point, the Knicks could already be too far out of the playoff mix to make a run realistic in 2018-19.
The timing of Porzingis' injury also complicates negotiations on a possible contract extension this summer, heading into the final year of his rookie contract. Neither LaVine nor Parker, operating on the same timetable, reached extensions.
Of course, Porzingis is much more accomplished than those players. Joel Embiid's extension might be a better template for the Knicks and Porzingis, as it gave him the potential to earn supermax money if eligible while also offering some protection to the Philadelphia 76ers if Embiid's career is marred by further injuries.
New York's other young talent
For all the focus the Knicks put on their young core before the season, this wasn't a particularly youthful roster. Weighted by minutes played, New York's average age was 27.1 at season's end -- almost exactly the league average of 27.2.
Besides Porzingis, the most important Knicks prospect was rookie Frank Ntilikina, whose first NBA campaign produced mixed results. He finished a league-worst 3.1 wins worse than replacement level by my metric, registering the worst true shooting percentage (.437) for any player who saw more than 1,000 minutes of action. On the plus side, Ntilikina was solid at the defensive end of the court, ranking 34th among point guards in defense, according to ESPN's real plus-minus (RPM). He also showed more advanced playmaking than expected, encouraging given the tendency for point guards to develop later than players at other positions.
However, it's unclear if New York still sees Ntilikina as a primary ball handler going forward. After the All-Star break, nearly 90 percent of Ntilikina's minutes came alongside one of the team's other point guards (Burke, Jack or Mudiay). To thrive in an off-ball role, Ntilikina will have to improve dramatically on this season's 31.8 percent 3-point shooting. He should benefit from the boost European players typically see to their 3-point accuracy in their second season stateside, but as a shooting guard Ntilikina is a less exceptional prospect.
Burke was a revelation for the Knicks after being called up from their G-League affiliate midseason, averaging 21.1 points per 36 minutes with above-average .563 true shooting and generally looking like the point guard drafted ninth overall in 2013. It's unlikely Burke will be able to sustain that efficiency, which was built largely on long 2-point attempts. According to Second Spectrum tracking, Burke was one of four NBA players to shoot better than 50 percent on 2s outside the paint, along with Stephen Curry, Chris Paul and Mike Scott.
If Burke regresses to something more like the 44.6 percent he shot on such attempts last season, per Second Spectrum, his scoring efficiency will drop below average. Add in Burke's defensive deficiencies and that probably makes him a better fit as a backup point guard long term.
Mudiay, another former lottery pick on whom New York bought low, yielded weaker results. He shot just 19.6 percent on 3s with the Knicks after a fluky strong start with the Denver Nuggets (37.3 percent), producing a worse true shooting percentage (.428) in New York than Ntilikina. Though Mudiay started 14 games, he looks unlikely to be part of the Knicks' core long term.
Second-round pick Damyean Dotson showed flashes, exploding for 30 points in a win over Miami last week, but must improve on 32.4 percent 3-point shooting. And fellow rookie Luke Kornet, signed to a two-way contract, showed the Porzingis-like ability to make 3s (shooting 35.4 percent) and block shots (1.8 per 36 minutes) in limited action, albeit without the kind of finishing, shot creation or rebounding that round out Porzingis' game.
The aforementioned "young core" touted by the team also included starting shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr., who turned 26 during the season and is likely close to his peak. Another member of the young core, Willy Hernangomez, was dealt to Charlotte before the trade deadline after falling out of favor behind centers Enes Kanter and Kyle O'Quinn. And the last core player, combo guard Ron Baker, also played sparingly before his season was ended by a torn shoulder labrum.
So while the roster has some young players worth keeping around, there are few surefire members of the next New York playoff roster.
How will Knicks get better?
The limited young talent makes it all the more imperative that New York nails its lottery pick this year. The Knicks will enter the lottery in ninth position, with just 6.1 percent chances of moving into the top three. Fortunately, a deep draft should give New York an opportunity to land a quality player from the ninth pick. The latest mock from ESPN's Jonathan Givony has the Knicks taking Alabama point guard Collin Sexton, with forwards Mikal Bridges (Villanova) and Miles Bridges (Michigan State) also available options.
Whether New York has the potential to create cap space this summer will be determined by Kanter and O'Quinn deciding whether to pick up their player options. Kanter told reporters at Thursday's exit interviews that his tentative plan is to decline the option in hopes of re-signing on a long-term deal this summer. That would be a bad outcome for the Knicks, who would be better off tying up their 2018-19 cap space with Kanter's $18.6 million option but retaining flexibility. (Something similar is true with O'Quinn, though he'll likely come at a lower price point.)
New York could create space in the summer of 2019 by waiving and stretching Joakim Noah (who will have just one year remaining on his deal at $19.3 million at that point) and waiving Lance Thomas (whose $7.6 million salary for 2019-20 is non-guaranteed), though a max or near-max extension for Porzingis would cut into that. The Knicks may be better off targeting the summer of 2020, when only Hardaway is currently on the books for more than a rookie contract.
If that sounds a long ways away, that's sort of the point. Short-term fixes like trading draft picks for veterans and overpaying in free agency have gotten New York to this point. Patience and good drafting are the Knicks' best hope of returning to playoff contention, even if it might take longer than they'd prefer.